An unhealthy glow

6th June 2003 at 01:00
Imagine a metal that glowed in the dark, emitting light without any external input. In the days when Hiroshima and Chernobyl were just names in an atlas, radium must have seemed the stuff of fairytales.

It was in December 1898 that Marie and Pierre Curie announced the discovery of a hitherto unknown element, two million times more radioactive than uranium. At first, the scientific world was sceptical. But soon doctors were using radium to destroy tumours, while quacks were promoting its use in everything from anti-ageing cream to millinery.

By 1906, the so-called radium craze was sweeping Europe and the US. But while the controlled use of radiation was curing some cancers, its uncontrolled use by healthy people was another matter entirely. The trouble was that even pioneers such as the Curies knew nothing of the hazards.

While early radiographers tested their X-ray machines on their hands each morning, young women employed to paint the popular new luminous clock dials were instructed to use their lips to bring the brush to a point.

In 1906, a Los Angeles "doctor" who sold radium and milk cures was sued for not using enough radium in his product. Real doctors, meanwhile, were prescribing radioactive preparations such as Radithor, a "liquid sunshine" that would cure stomach cancer.

Over-the-counter radium-enhanced products were hugely popular throughout the 1920s - everything from Tho-Radia, a "beauty cream" containing thorium and radium, to "atomic sodas", radioactive drinks guaranteed to supply "infinite energy".

There were radium foot salves and sweets, and even radium-fortified jockstraps for men with sexual dysfunction. The Revigator, a sort of water dispenser lined with radioactive ore, was bought by hundreds of thousands of families, and nobody knows how many were made ill by the "miracle" in their midst.

One thing was certain. When Eben M Byers, a playboy steel tycoon and regular imbiber of Radithor, died of a ghastly bone disease in 1932, the tide quickly turned against radium products.

Two years later, Marie Curie herself died of pernicious anaemia, her bone marrow destroyed by years of exposure to radiation.

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